Most of the original cast of “The Ultimate Fighter” is feeling its age these days.
After his loss to featherweight champion Jose Aldo at UFC 136, Kenny Florian said he needs time away to consider his future in MMA. Forrest Griffin is also taking a break from the cage, celebrating the birth of his first child and cooling off on the heels of his third defeat in five fights. Even the normally swaggering Josh Koscheck seemed surprisingly reflective during a recent meet-and-greet with the media, implying he too is working toward an end-game strategy.
“I don’t have much longer in this career,” Koscheck told MMA Weekly earlier this month. “At this point I want to take big fights, big names and sell the hell out of the fight and go in there and perform and win ... I’m trying to get paid.”
If waves of MMA superstars can be neatly organized into graduating classes, then the cast of TUF 1 is certainly one of the most important. The role of the reality show in popularizing the UFC with mainstream fans is already well documented and the role of popularizing the reality show itself obviously fell on the 16 unknowns cast for its inaugural season. Now, as America’s largest MMA promoter finds itself on the verge of another tectonic shift -- to network television, a charge into new international markets and nearly 35 live events each year -- is it nearly time to say goodbye to the cast of the first TUF?
If it is, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised.
Florian is 35 years old, Koscheck is 33 and Griffin 32. Bobby Southworth -- wherever he is -- turns 42 in December. It’s been almost seven years since “The Ultimate Fighter” debuted on SpikeTV and at the breakneck pace of our sport’s continuing mainstream evolution, that feels like a lifetime ago.
Yet this passage of time is also somehow startling. These guys seemed like such kids when we first met them. Then they suddenly became big names, bridging the gap between the original draws of the Zuffa era -- guys like Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin -- and the next generation. Now, Koscheck’s declaration that he wants to pick and choose “big” fights makes him sound a lot more like Franklin or Hughes than a guy who still considers himself in the thick of the welterweight hunt.
Not everybody is on the verge of calling it quits, mind you. Chris Leben has a bout with Mark Munoz coming up next month at UFC 138 and Diego Sanchez is expected to face Jake Ellenberger down the road at UFC 141. Victories in those fights would probably put Sanchez and Leben right back into contention in their respective weight classes.
But even the two youngest remaining members of the TUF 1 cast aren’t exactly spring chickens anymore. You couldn’t blame anyone for thinking these upcoming fights may well represent the last best chance for “The Crippler” or “The Dream” to make a run at UFC gold. If that doesn’t make you feel old, I don’t know what will.
Of the original participants of TUF 1, just seven are still active in the Octagon. Aside from the guys mentioned, Mike Swick continues to work toward a return from on-going health issues and Stephan Bonnar still soldiers on in the light heavyweight division. Five of that first 16 have fought for UFC titles but only one -- Griffin -- became champion. That’s not counting Lodune Sincaid’s brief run with the light heavyweight title in a pre-Zuffa WEC because, you know, why would we count that?
Agreeing to be on the original TUF must have felt like a considerable leap of faith back in those early days, especially to a group of up and comers who were essentially betting their careers on a totally unknown property. At times they all must have secretly wondered if it was going to work, or crash and burn.
Now facing the twilight of their careers, I wonder if any of them ever had an inkling the show -- which just began season 14 -- would outlast them all.